Microsoft's Tablet Surfaces

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Microsoft's latest move into the tablet space is called Surface (Fig. 1) and it comes in two flavors. An x86 Atom-based version will run Windows 8. An Arm-based version will run Windows RT. Both will have the same Windows 8 Metro interface (see Windows 8 Is Almost Here. Are You Ready?) although the x86 version can run Windows 8 Pro providing access to the desktop.

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Figure 1. Windows 8 Metro interface works well for a tablet but can be a challenge to users of prior incarnations.

Microsoft's Surface tablets have a flip out keyboard that is only 3mm thick. It doubles as a cover and comes in five colors including hot pink. The back of the tablet opens 22 degrees using a kickstand turning the tablet into a netbook although many would rather compare this to a Ultrabook. Even the front-facing camera is tilted to work as a webcam when the tablet is propped up like this.

Surface looks like most tablets overall albeit with a snazzy VaporMg molded magnesium casing. It has a 10.6-in, 16:9 aspect ratio suitable for streaming HD videos. It has connections for a microSD card, USB 2.0 and Micro HD video. There is a 2x2 MIMO antenna. Its WiFi support is standard and currently there has been no mention of 3G/4G support. It will come with 32 Gbyte or 64 Gbyte flash storage.

The Arm-based version is 9.3mm thick that is thinner than the iPad. The x86 platform is thicker at 13.4mm. The 676g Windows RT version has a 31.5 W-h battery while the x86 version has a 42 W-h battery.

The Surface is not Microsoft's first move into hardware. It has popular keyboards, mice and webcams. Microsoft's Zune and XBox 360 are also successful hardware platforms but on the PC side it has left hardware to its partners.

In one sense, the Surface is a response to the success of Apple's iPad and its walled software garden. Microsoft had already announced its move into the app store arena with the Windows Store for Windows 8.

Microsoft's offering will affect vendors in the tablet space but probably not in the embedded space. This area tends to require a more rugged solutions or integration with peripherals not common on conventional tablets like scanners or industrial sensors. The advantage for designers and developers will be a robust software platform.

The choice of tablets may shrink as vendors like Apple and Microsoft move to vertical integration approach. It will be interesting to see how the consumer side is works out and how this will affect the use of tablets in conjunction with embedded applications as well as customization of tablet solutions for specialized use.

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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